By John Bohnenkamp
Owen Oreskovich was asked last Monday about what it meant to have Lincoln Riley back in center field for the Burlington Bees.
The Bees manager pointed to Riley’s diving catch for the second out in the ninth inning of the 6-5 win over the O’Fallon Hoots at Community Field.
“See those plays out in center today?” Oreskovich said, smiling. “That’s what it means to me to have him back.”
Five nights later, after Riley made another diving catch to get the Bees out of a first inning in which they had surrendered two runs and were dealing with runners on second and third base, Oreskovich just had to marvel again.
“That saves that inning,” Oreskovich said after the 5-3 loss to the Alton River Dragons.
It’s Riley’s second season with the Bees, and he knows the Community Field outfield well. He played in the stadium last spring as a member of Southeastern Community College’s baseball team, and then last summer with the Bees.
“It feels great to be back,” Riley said. “When I was driving back here, all of the memories were coming back, from Southeastern, last summer here.”
Riley, getting ready for his senior season at Eastern Illinois University, is glad to be playing again. He suffered an ankle injury on May 20 in EIU’s final regular-season series against Southeast Missouri State, and spent the time since then trying to get back on the field.
“It sucked sitting on the couch, not being able to play,” Riley said. “But it’s good to be back here playing.
“When I got here, it was good to see some of the guys I played with last season. Some of the guys who have been here all year, you can see they’re a little tired. I was in that situation last year, playing all spring and all summer. It’s tiring getting into these dog days. It was good to see these guys, get to know them. This is a good team, and I’m glad to be here and be a part of it.”
If the ankle is bothering him — Riley said that it can be “a little uncomfortable” at times — it hasn’t shown in his play in center field.
“When he gets out in the outfield, I don’t think he feels a thing,” Oreskovich said. “He hawks balls down, and it’s incredible to watch when you’re here. Any ball to center, I feel like it’s going to be an out. Even if it’s hit to the wall, I think he’s going to run it down.”
Riley’s talent at reading fly balls is something he said he’s acquired throughout a long career of playing in the outfield.
“The big thing is just getting reps,” said Riley, who grew up in Marion, Iowa and played at Cedar Rapids Washington High School. “Just seeing the ball off the bat is crazy important. Being out there all of the time throughout the years, the reps are so important.”
“It’s his jumps,” Oreskovich said. “I mean, if you watch, when the ball gets hit, you turn, he’s already in full sprint. His routes, and jumps, are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I said it last summer, he’s been the best center fielder I’ve ever been around.”
Riley found himself at the top of the Bees’ batting order when he arrived. He is hitting .267 with a .450 on-base percentage.
“I know he’s been a little frustrated with his hitting,” Oreskovich said. “He’s such a competitive kid, like, ‘I want to do it right now.’ Once we get his bat going, he’ll be even more of an incredible asset to this team.”
“I’ve been (leading off) for a while right now, so it’s a spot I’m comfortable at,” Riley said. “But anywhere in the lineup, I’m fine with it. Wherever O puts me, I’ll play.”
Riley is comfortable with the outfielders around him, whether it’s A.J. Henkle or Sam Monroe or Kevin Santiago. There can be friendly banter between the outfielders during the game, and everyone, Riley said, does a good job with communication.
“It’s really good to have that speed that we have out there,” Riley said. “But what it comes down to is communication. With all of those fast guys out there, you need to be able to communicate. But we do well with that.
“It’s good to have a good outfield.”
Riley hit .279 with a .467 on-base percentage at EIU last season. He is a corporate communications major, and he’s appreciating the chance to keep his baseball career going, even if it might be for a short time.
“Honestly, for me, this may be my last year in baseball,” Riley said. “You never know. So it’s about having fun, taking it all in. You don’t get to play baseball for your whole life. So, I’m just trying to have fun, get some reps in before I get back to school.”
Being back in a familiar place helps.
“Burlington just has a spot in my heart,” Riley said. “This is a really cool baseball place. And there are great people here. I’m enjoying it.”
Photo: Bees center fielder Lincoln Riley makes a diving catch to end the first inning in Saturday’s game against Alton. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)